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Gunnison Sage Grouse Listing as Threatened Species Draws Colorado's Ire

The Obama administration on Wednesday declared as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) the Gunnison sage grouse, kicking off the prospect of likely legal challenges and posing potential problems for oil and natural gas development in parts of Utah and Colorado.

The action prompted many of Colorado's elected officials, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, both U.S. Senators and House representatives to criticize the decision. A designated ESA listing had already been anticipated (see Daily GPINov. 11).

"We are deeply disappointed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chose to ignore the extraordinary efforts over the last two decades by the state, local governments, business leaders and environmentalists to protect the Gunnison sage grouse and its habitat," said Hickenlooper.

Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennett, and Reps. Scott Tipton and Cory Gardner echoed his sentiments. Colorado officials considered the threatened listing as a slap in the face to $50 million of land conservation, research and voluntary mitigation measures.

"In short, this is a major blow to voluntary conservation efforts and we will do everything we can, including taking the agency to court, to fight this listing and support impacted local governments, landowners and other stakeholders," Hickenlooper said.

The Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said mitigation work in recent years by states and private landowners allowed for the lesser designation of threatened versus an endangered listing.

"While many people hoped that the extraordinary conservation efforts by our partners in Colorado and Utah would resolve all the threats faced by the Gunnison sage grouse, the best available science indicates that the species still requires ESA's protection," said FWS Director Dan Ashe. "This is a work in progress, however, and we will continue to join our partners in protecting and restoring the rangelands with the hope that, in the near future, the Gunnison sage grouse will no longer need additional protection."

The listing would have no impact on many of the area’s agricultural landowners, according to a FWS spokesperson. Those who previously entered into agreements known as Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances would continue to abide by them to fully comply with the ESA.

Under the ESA, a species is listed as threatened if it is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. It can take years to be removed from a threatened listing by the FWS. The most perilous listing of endangered is given if a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. It may take decades to be removed from the endangered list.

Since being proposed last year for listing, estimates on the annual cost of conservation of the Gunnison sage grouse found in parts of a 1.7 million-acre area in the two states is $290 million (see Daily GPISept. 20, 2013). The Gunnison sage grouse is impactful on oil/gas operations, but to a much lesser extent than the Greater sage grouse.

FWS originally proposed to list the species as endangered in January 2013, but efforts by Colorado and Utah, as well as tribes, local communities, private landowners and other stakeholders to conserve the species and its habitat helped reduce the threats to the bird sufficiently to give it the more flexibly protected status of threatened, the FWS spokesperson said.

In addition, FWS's efforts to work with plaintiffs to extend an earlier court settlement deadline to allow more time for development of conservation commitments by counties and states were unsuccessful, and therefore, the spokesperson said the agency had to proceed with the Wednesday's listing and critical habitat designation.

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